Should You Force Your Child to Play Piano?

Modern humans fall into three main categories: 

1. Those who were forced to learn the piano in childhood, hated it, and have little to no regrets over quitting
2. Those who were forced to learn the piano in childhood, hated it, but are glad their parents insisted with them
3. Those who have never learned to play piano

I’m a Category 1 human, with mild regrets. The regrets, however, developed very slowly. I was 22 years old and on an LDS mission in Cape Verde before I decided maybe it would have been a good idea to spend my teenage years acquiring skills like piano playing rather than wiling away my the hours consuming gallon after gallon of vanilla ice cream and admiring Rob Ross’s happy little trees.

I don’t think I ever actually practiced the piano, although I assured my grandma I did. But to my juvenile mind, Grandma was asking for it: first, she had posed a direct question that couldn’t be diverted to another subject; second, she was too sweet for me to disappoint. How could I have but lied to her? Not my fault. I’m not sure how Grandma found out that I eventually quit taking piano lessons; I wasn’t the one who told her.

Guitar was Savannah's "starter" piano until we realized it wasn't an actual piano.
So, back to that time when I regretted not knowing how to play the piano. It was like this: we were on this island in the middle of the Atlantic, and the only missionary who knew how to play the piano for our church congregation had left. The rest of us (who were all Category 1 humans) felt like I’m sure you’d feel if you were at 50,000 feet and the flight attendant announces that, coincidentally, both the pilot and the copilot of the plane have just had heart attacks, the autopilot is nonfunctional, and does anyone here maybe know how to fly an aircraft? I raise my hand and say, “Um, I took piano lessons for seven years.” And the rest of the missionaries breathe sighs of relief and then say, “Oh, good! What can you play?” And I say, “Well, maybe ‘Sweet Hour of Prayer.’” And they’re like, “Great, but what else?” And I’m like, “Well, . . . nothing else.” So I play “Sweet Hour of Prayer” for the introductory hymn, the Sacrament hymn, the rest hymn, and the closing hymn. Fortunately, Cape Verdeans are particularly fond of “Sweet Hour of Prayer,” so nobody seems to mind the repetition.

(My Grandma heard that story through the grapevine, and it’s all she could talk about it when I returned home. For her, that moment was the great and glorious climax of my eighteen-month mission.)

Reflecting on my own experience with piano has made me ponder on what category of humans my children will be. My nine year old has been taking piano lessons for six months now, and getting her to practice daily has been stressful for the both of us. So I asked myself, what if the three categories of humans are too simplistic, and force should play no part at all in learning piano? What about the importance of my kid’s free will? If I’m continually ignoring her free will and forcing her to do things my way, isn’t she going to start resenting me—I mean, before she’s even a teenager? Can a person even learn piano without being forced? 

Coincidentally, the parenting book I’m currently reading had an answer for me: 

“Our strong-arm tactics teach children that it’s legitimate to use force to influence others. Through force, we attempt to remove other people’s choices. By removing their choices, we remove their self-esteem and their ability to make commitments. . . . If you catch yourself saying, ‘How can I make my child [practice the piano]?’ change the question to, ‘How can I help my child to be more likely to choose to [practice the piano]?’” (Becky A. Bailey, Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline, p. 46).

I asked my wise Facebook friends how a person might go about helping a child to choose to learn the piano. Here are some of their ideas:

  • Find out what you have to work with by actually asking your child how she feels about piano. Discover what she likes and doesn’t like, and why. Ask her how you think you, she, and the teacher could improve her overall satisfaction with learning the piano.
  • Give the kid a break. You can stop lessons for six to twelve months and then start them up again to see if her attitude shifts.
  • Wait until your child is older. Sometimes maturity can uncover a new interest in piano.
  • Assess whether the child’s schedule or emotional tolerance is overtaxed. Maybe your child or your relationship would be best served by attention directed at something other than the piano.
  • Change teachers. The current teacher might not connect with the child, or maybe her technique doesn’t answer the child’s needs or learning style.
  • Explain to your child the nature of learning an instrument: sometimes achievement requires muscling through difficulties or periods of ennui (Isn’t that a great word? I rarely get the chance to use it. . . . Good times.).
  • Sit down with your child and set a goal—for example, maybe mastery of a certain song or suite of songs. (Make sure it’s her goal, not yours.) Tell her that when she’s competent enough to play those songs on the piano, she can choose a different instrument to learn.
  • Change songbooks. She might be more interested in learning how to play songs she’s familiar with. You might be able to find simplified versions of songs that catch her interest.
  • Consider changing your practice schedule. Maybe emotionally your child needs low-stress mornings (or afternoons) more than she needs piano practice. If the problem is the length of practice sessions, you might want to break up daily practice into two sessions.
  • Consider changing instruments; perhaps piano simply doesn’t interest your child. If she’s enthusiastic about a different instrument, that energy might carry her farther into musical education (assuming that’s your aim) than piano could.

With all of these ideas in hand, I sat down with my daughter and asked her how she felt about the piano—did she hate it terribly? She surprised me by saying that in fact she rather enjoys it. That is, she enjoys playing songs once she knows them; it’s the bit about learning notes and new songs that’s frustrating.

Then I asked her what she thought we could do to improve her experience with piano. She suggested that she might enjoy learning songs she’s familiar with. After a little more probing, we determined that she’d be excited to learn songs from Disney movies. I called up her piano teacher right away, and she was perfectly willing to pick up a simplified Disney songbook.

Voila! I had thought my daughter was ready to call it quits with piano (and I was just about ready to do the same), but all she really needed was a change in song types. I need to remember to ask and listen before I make firm conclusions about my kids’ preferences and prospects. As the Cape Verdeans say it, “The goat’s ear is older and wiser than its horn.” 

Add a comment if you have more ideas to encourage kids to want to continue learning piano or another instrument!